Europe Must Hold Itself Accountable for Its Historic Treatment of the Roma

What follows is the original English version of the German text that was published on Wednesday, 23 January 2019 in FOCUSwhich can be read in full HERE. It was written in anticipation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January).

Written by Katalin Bársony

Featured Image via FOCUS


In Romanes, the language of the Romani people, the Holocaust is referred to as the Pharrajimos, which means “devouring”. Before the start of World War II, Romani and Sinti people throughout Europe were treated as second-class citizens, which included unequal treatment in the legal system. Because of their indeterminate status legally, there was and remains considerable debate about the actual number of Roma and Sinti who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Total estimates of Romani lives lost across Europe range from 500,000 to 1,500,000.

It is widely accepted that the number of Roma and Sinti who were systematically exterminated at the Auschwitz-Birkenau was 20,000. This month, on 26 February, it will be 76 years since the a train carrying Romani people arrived at Auschwitz. This single train that came into the station in 1943 would be the first of many that would arrive full of Roma into the camp complex. It was the beginning of a tragedy that European history has largely ignored – the Romani Holocaust, or Pharrajimos.

Similar to the fate of other targeted groups of peoples that suffered under the tyranny of the Third Reich, Roma were classified as belonging to the “other,” were forced to adorn symbols to indicate their inferior status within society, and were subject to the dehumanizing efforts of the National Socialist Party. In 1935, Romani and Sinti people lost their civil rights after the Nuremberg race laws that were passed earlier in the year were extended to also apply to Roma. In December 1942, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS) signed an order to begin mass deportations of Roma to Auschwitz. The liquidation of Roma within the Third Reich was a part of the deadliest phase of the Holocaust known as Operation Reinhard. During their internment, Roma were forced to wear brown inverted triangles on their prison uniforms as an identifying mark. This powerful symbol distinguished Romani people from other groups that were targeted for annihilation by the Nazis. From 1943 until 1945, approximately 23,000 Roma were transported to Auschwitz, many of them without being properly registered. Many of these inmates, especially Romani children, were subject to pseudo-medical experiments that were thought of and carried out by German SS officer and camp physician Josef Mengele. By the end of the war, 20,000 of those 23,000 Roma that were forcibly brought to and held in the separate camp for Roma, or the Zigeunerfamilienlager, were murdered.

In spite of the staggering number of Roma and Sinti lives that were destroyed as a result of Nazi Germany’s ethnic cleansing, the Roma Holocaust has yet to be properly recognized Europe-wide. Neither at the Nuremberg trials that immediately followed the end of the armed conflict nor in the decades that followed the series of military tribunals did Germany include Roma in their reparations scheme. In 1950, during a hearing about restitution payments, Württemberg’s Ministry of the Interior claimed that, “The Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of their criminal and antisocial record”. Only in 1982 did West Germany officially acknowledge the Pharrajimos, and it was not until 1992 that a proposal was accepted by the then newly-united Germany to erect a monument to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialist in Berlin on 24 October 2012.

Nonetheless, Romani people continue to suffer hate speech, discrimination and persecution in Europe today. Police often deal with hate crimes against Roma without considering the hate element, and perpetrators often face little in the way of legal consequences. Over the last decade, Roma have lost their lives as a result of attacks based on their identity.

At a more subtle and insidious level, images of Roma today still reflect those of 19th-century literature influenced by the then-powerful “Gypsy craze” in Europe, which depicted Roma as exotic and secretive. This is in contrast to many other minority groups, whose representations in European media and culture in recent decades have changed to reflect how they themselves wish to be represented.

While commemoration of the “Forgotten Holocaust” is shifting, the narrative of Europe’s Roma has yet to be determined by Romani people themselves. Romani communities’ immeasurable suffering during the Second World War and their continued plight within a Europe that remains, at a minimum, largely indifferent. Given the absence of primary and secondary documentary evidence of the Pharrajimos and the absence of concerted efforts to better understand Romani and Sinti people’s experiences at present, the importance of cultural strategies to preserve the memory of past violence while offering alternative, if not counter, narratives of both repression and resistance cannot be overstated.

It is imperative for Romani and Sinti people to cultivate an in-depth consciousness of their identity and to educate one another, as well as share that information with non-Roma. Given that Roma were excluded from the official reconciliation processes, this exchange of information could serve as a means of closure. Since the 1980s, Romani film creatives have sought to uncover and reclaim the Pharrajimos. Documentarians, from Katrin Seybold and Melanie Spitta in Germany to Jószef Lojko and the Non-burried victims (Miklos Jancsó) -Ágnes Daróczi  in Hungary as well as Lordan Zafranović in Croatia, gathered survivor testimonies and archival footage to reconstruct narratives that were yet to have been included in the mainstream understanding of the Holocaust. Katrin Berger’s “Ceija Stojka” (Austria, 1999) recounts the experiences of concentration camps from Romani perspectives. Marika Schmiedt’sEine lästige Gesellschaft” (Austria, 2001) stresses the importance of third-generation survivors to explore and interrogate the past.

“Pamyataty,” or “Remembrance” in English, (Ukraine, 2017) by Petro Rusanenko, a young director of Romani origin, will feature in the film section of the recently opened RomArchive. His carefully written script encourages the viewer to consider the situation of the characters, a Roma and non-Roma Ukrainian woman, from both of their perspectives, and by extension prompts a discussion about the relationship that exists between Roma and non-Roma, especially within a country. It is an artistic rendering of the violence enacted with impunity against Europe’s Romani communities that is forcing into the dialogue an examination of the Pharrajimos in Ukraine. Furthermore, it serves as a contemplation of present-day European interethnic relations, especially the salience of negative stereotypes.

The RomArchive, available online as of 24 January 2019, makes accessible Romani academic scholarship, cultural resources, and works of art in a collection that is entirely unprecedented in both its breadth and depth. It not only demonstrates the significance of Romani contributions to the European heritage but it also stands out as a reliable source of information that both restores the human dignity which Romani people in Europe are too often deprived of and confronts the intolerant populist rhetoric that is gaining popularity across the continent.

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, experiences like that of Zoni Weisz, who witnessed his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, are reachable by Roma and non-Roma alike globally. In an interview for RomArchive, Zoni Weisz speaks to the importance of preserving the memory of trauma in an increasingly polarized Europe; He states, “…we’ve got to work at it and mobilise our people to go outside and make it known that we are people just like everybody else. We have to tell our story! To me that is a major contribution towards a better future. For instance, through art! Through art we can tell a very powerful story and experience our own identity as something positive.”

Katalin Barsony is a producer and a documentary filmmaker and serves as the Executive Director of Romedia Foundation, which creates feature-length and short films as well as leads campaigns that promote Roma self-representation in media.